The Horse in Native American History

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Excerpt and photos courtesy of National Geographic, March issue


The Horse in Native American History

Jones Benally received this gelding, Moonwalker, pictured here just outside the Navajo Nation in Arizona, from a patient for his services as a medicine man. By tribal tradition, lightning is thought to be the spark of all creation.
The Horse in Native American History
An Appaloosa named Harley models a Cayuse mask from the late 1800s. Mask: Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, 1996.016.0001, Pendleton, Oregon.

Horses had opened new possibilities. They allowed men to hunt buffalo more productively than ever before, to range farther, to make devastating raids against other tribes. They relieved women of some onerous duties, such as lugging possessions from camp to camp. They tipped the balance, in population growth and territorial expansion, between hunting tribes and farming tribes, favoring the former. They also replaced the only previously domesticated animal in North America, the dog, which was much smaller and weaker and had to be fed meat. A horse could live off the land, eating what people and dogs didn’t want: grass. When drought or winter snows made grass unavailable, it could even survive on cottonwood bark…


The Horse in Native American History
Nakia Williamson rides a cross between an Appaloosa and the hardy Akhal-Teke from Turkmenistan, one of the world’s oldest breeds, renowned for courage and endurance. The horse he’s leading at his home in Lapwai, Idaho, is his full Appaloosa.

The negative aspects of the horse revolution have passed into history, but horses remain vastly important to many Native Americans, especially the Plains tribes, as objects of pride, as tokens of tradition, and for the ancient values they help channel into a difficult present: pageantry, discipline, prowess, concern for other living creatures, and the passing of skills across generations.



Published April 2014 Issue

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